Journal Article

Harnessing the potential of Google searches for understanding dynamics of intimate partner violence before and after the COVID-19 outbreak

Köksal, S., Pesando, L. M., Rotondi, V., Şanlitürk, A. E.
European Journal of Population, 38:3, 517–545 (2022)
Open Access


Most social phenomena are inherently complex and hard to measure, often due to under-reporting, stigma, social desirability bias, and rapidly changing external circumstances. This is for instance the case of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV), a highly-prevalent social phenomenon which has drastically risen in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. This paper explores whether big data—an increasingly common tool to track, nowcast, and forecast social phenomena in close-to-real time—might help track and understand IPV dynamics. We leverage online data from Google Trends to explore whether online searches might help reach “hard-to-reach” populations such as victims of IPV using Italy as a case-study. We ask the following questions: Can digital traces help predict instances of IPV—both potential threat and actual violent cases—in Italy? Is their predictive power weaker or stronger in the aftermath of crises such as COVID-19? Our results suggest that online searches using selected keywords measuring different facets of IPV are a powerful tool to track potential threats of IPV before and during global-level crises such as the current COVID-19 pandemic, with stronger predictive power post outbreaks. Conversely, online searches help predict actual violence only in post-outbreak scenarios. Our findings, validated by a Facebook survey, also highlight the important role that socioeconomic status (SES) plays in shaping online search behavior, thus shedding new light on the role played by third-level digital divides in determining the predictive power of digital traces. More specifically, they suggest that forecasting might be more reliable among high-SES population strata.

Keywords: Italy
The Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) in Rostock is one of the leading demographic research centers in the world. It's part of the Max Planck Society, the internationally renowned German research society.